We live in an age where kids are getting into computers at a younger and younger age. In many families teenagers know more about the internet than their parents, and even pre-teens are becoming skilled at writing code - the language of the web.
While it’s great that our children are interested in how the online world works, it’s also a bit scary that they can work out how to manipulate it. How? Well, if you learn a new language, you can learn how to say some bad things.
I’m talking about hacking - the process of accessing a physical device or digital program and discovering how to make it work in a way it wasn’t intended.
Learning to hack
A lot of kids now spend a lot of time on online gaming. And while the majority of children play earnestly and honestly, more and more are succumbing to finding hacking cheats online - and even writing the coded hacks themselves. This will come as a shock to most parents,who have no idea their 12-year-old might be into video game cheating or curiously surfing the web looking for websites they can hack.
A lot of this is pretty harmless, compared to the serious hacks that are carried out by governments and organised criminal organisations. It’s mostly about curiosity, blowing off steam and showing off to friends. And a lot of children just grow out this phase.
But once a kid has been seriously bitten by the hacking bug, there’s one of two ways they can go: to the light or dark side of the Force. They can either become ‘white hat’ or ‘black hat’ hackers. What does this mean? Let’s look to Star Wars for an explanation...
Going to the dark side
Star Wars has a very simple mythology to understand: there are goodies and baddies - the Jedi and the Sith. The Jedi patrol the universe seeking out injustice and protecting the innocent. Conversely, the Sith are the villains, and are selfish and manipulative. They’re a force for evil in the universe, and don’t care who they hurt.
Bizarrely, this is actually a pretty good allegory for web hackers. The ‘Force’ is the power of coding and hacking, which is strong both among the good and bad guys. The Jedis are the kids that grow up to be white hat hackers. The Sith are the kids that turn into black hat hackers.
What does this actually mean? Basically, white hat hackers are guys that find website vulnerabilities and inform the website owners of the problem. They’re the guys that discover and report problems with new software. They might work in software programming and antivirus protection, or they might just be passionate about it.
Black hat hackers are the guys who trawl the web looking for websites that are easy targets. They seek out sites they can hack to steal data - like users’ account, credit card and other personal details. They’re the ones who look to exploit loopholes and vulnerabilities in new software for their own gain.
The kids are alright
This should make you want to do two things. Firstly, it should make you want to talk to your kids about hacking and appropriate use of the internet. Remember, the web isn’t a moral vacuum; there are good and bad areas that influence your children. Think of the internet like a large city, full of bright and brilliant places to learn and play - as well as dark and dangerous areas, too. Places you wouldn’t want your kids to go alone.
Young hackers can often feel isolated from the result of their actions. Explain to your kids that actions have consequences, and describe how seemingly harmless ‘showing off’ pranks could hurt people.
Secondly, it should prompt you to make sure you’re already protected against the black hat hackers out there who pose a danger to you and your family. You should seek out leading, trusted providers of up-to-date online safety software to make sure you’re putting up effective barriers against the hackers and scammers.
Family, parenting and home environment could play a factor in whether kids go to the light or dark side. There’s nothing wrong with your children being curious about the digital world and how they can manipulate apps, games and websites to make them do what they want. But how will this play out in future? Will they use their power for good or evil?
Part of parenting is about giving children a solid grounding in moral behaviour - and that should extend to the online world as well as the ‘real’ physical one.